Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Holy Grail of E-Textbook Publishing

Every time I turn around, it seems, we in educational publishing are discussing the impact of e-textbooks and how they're perceived by the market. We talk about how to sell them, package them, promote them.

But we're talking about the cart before we've figured out how to move the horse. To move the horse we need to completely rethink how we develop textbooks and, most specifically, how we generate content in the first place.

Retrofitting content

Right now, textbook publishers are generally taking already-developed content and merging it with whatever electronic content we can find. Basically, we're retrofitting printed content into an electronic format.

Oh, sure, we try to make all that content pretty and "intuitive," but we're retrofitting it nonetheless. Right now, I think that's pretty much all we can do.

Eventually, though, and I hope sooner rather than later, we need to start developing content specifically and only for electronic delivery. No easy task.

Deconstructing content

To create truly useful electronic content we need to completely deconstruct the way we write books, and then build out with an entirely new approach, one that starts with a summary and then branches from there.

Let me explain.

When you sit down to write a chapter in a textbook, you start with a global concept and then start breaking down that concept into its many disparate pieces. Let's call these pieces of content chunks.

The process works perfectly for print, with the reader delving deeper and deeper into the chunks and each subsequent concept opening itself to discovery. Then, at the end of each chapter, we summarize what was discussed, highlighting each key concept.

We've been trying to do the same thing with e-books, and we've been failing miserably.

Students find retrofitted e-books disjointed and incomplete. They find it hard to follow the flow, and it's little wonder. We can't expect a student to follow a flow of information that has been lifted from a textbook and force-fed into a pretty software shell.

No, we need to write the content specifically for that delivery, and that's one tall order.

Creating content

To create a truly useful e-textbook, we need authors who can write about complex and comprehensive topics in ways that go against pretty much everything they know about writing.

Logical flow from one concept to the next? Not so much.

Gradual building of concepts one on the other? Nah.

Overall organization from head-to-toe, inside-to-outside, normal-to-pathological? Ho-hum.

What we need to create instead are non-linear, compartmentalized, almost blog-like chunks of content that can be manipulated in a variety of ways by the learner. Here's how it would work:
  • For linear learners, we would present the content electronically in a mostly linear way, much like a book, with links and other "off-shoot" functionality for related content always at hand.
  • For visual learners, we would present the content in a highly visual way, perhaps using concept maps that allow the learner to navigate through the area based on what they'd like to learn, when, and how.
  • For auditory learners, we would provide key concepts in audible and written format and allow them to navigate through the content through audible cues.
In short, we need to create content in such a way that it can be used by the end user  — the learner  — anyway they want it while still providing an effective learning environment. We just can't do that by retrofitting content from a printed textbook. It will take more, something new, and something revolutionary.

I think this new process is the holy grail of textbook publishing, and I for one can't wait for it to evolve.